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Op-Ed: Barack Obama’s criminal legacy on war, torture and Guantánamo


Obama holds the dubious distinction of being the only leader in American history who waged continuous war for an entire 8-year presidency. He bombed more countries than George W. Bush, although Bush’s death toll was exponentially higher. Still, under Obama, U.S. bombs and bullets killed thousands of civilians in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Pakistan, Somalia, Syria and Yemen. U.S. forces bombed hospitals, homes, weddings, funerals, first responders and troops from both allied nations and countries with which the United States is not at war. The U.S. dropped at least 26,171 bombs in 2016 alone, or one bombing every 20 minutes.

The president dramatically escalated the drone war started under the previous administration, compiling a “kill list” that includes American citizens. Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, an innocent 16-year-old Denver, Colorado native and the son of an al-Qaeda leader, was killed in 2011 while dining in an outdoor restaurant on a visit to his ancestral homeland, Yemen. His father, also American, had been extra-judicially assassinated in a similar strike two weeks earlier. When pressed on why an innocent American teenager had been killed, a senior Obama adviser said he should have “had a more responsible father.” Obama also redefined the term “militant” to include all combat-age males in a designated strike zone, a deceptive move meant to minimize civilian casualty counts. The administration also covered up war crimes in Afghanistan, according to the human rights group Amnesty International.

The Obama administration has provided weapons and diplomatic cover to allies who commit war crimes during their own armed conflicts, including but not limited to Afghanistan, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Israel. Obama also supported some of the world’s most brutal dictatorships in countries including Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Ethiopia, South Sudan, Equatorial Guinea, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. The administration backed a right-wing military coup in Honduras that ushered in an era of state suppression, torture and murder of thousands of people. Obama also personally exempted select nations from the Child Soldiers Prevention Act — signed by George W. Bush in 2008, which banned U.S. military aid to countries whose armed forces enslave, conscript or employ child soldiers.

Obama’s 2011 decision to wage war in Libya without seeking congressional approval as required under the 1973 War Powers Act was illegal.

CIA drone strikes that killed hundreds of civilians in Pakistan and Yemen flout international law and may amount to war crimes, according to Christof Heyns, the United Nations special rapporteur on extrajudicial killings, summary or arbitrary executions.

The deliberate targeting of civilian homes and institutions — the U.S. admitted intentionally bombing a Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF or, in English, Doctors Without Borders) hospital in Afghanistan, killing 42 patients and staff even though there was no direct threat to U.S. troops — was condemned as a breach of international humanitarian law, with MSF calling it a war crime.

The extrajudicial execution of American citizens is a violation of the constitutional guarantee of due process.


During his first presidential campaign a decade ago, Obama promised to investigate Bush administration officials responsible for the torture of prisoners in the war against terrorism. On his second day as president, he signed an executive order banning torture. However, while decreasing dramatically, reports of torture by U.S. forces — and cover-ups by the Obama administration — persist, with a shift from brutal physical torture that resulted in dozens of detainee deaths during the Bush era to more psychological forms of torture, including prolonged solitary confinement.

While Obama’s executive order banned torture, his admission that “we tortured some folks” during the Bush years and his decision to preserve the 2014 Senate report on CIA torture in his presidential library are all laudable moves, these actions are outweighed by the president’s failure to declassify the Senate report, his concerted effort to undermine publication of the report and, most importantly by far, his failure to hold the Bush officials who authorized torture accountable. Not only did Obama fail to prosecute the Bush torturers, his administration actively shielded them from any accountability whatsoever. Obama explained he was “more interested in looking forwards… than backwards,” a statement he may come to regret given how the climate of impunity for torture he established could embolden Donald Trump, who has promised to “bring back a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding.”

Shamefully, only one CIA official was prosecuted and imprisoned for torture-related crimes. But John Kiriakou was sentenced to 30 months in prison not for torturing detainees, but rather for blowing the whistle on torture. Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the Pentagon Papers revealing decades of government lies and abuses during the Vietnam War, blasted the Obama administration for “criminalizing the revelation of illegality [while] decriminalizing the illegality– the torture.” Kiriakou was one of many whistleblowers severely punished under Obama for revealing government crimes and misdeeds.

Under the Convention against Torture and other laws, failure to investigate and prosecute credible allegations of torture is a violation of the law.


On his second day in office, President Obama signed an executive order to close the U.S. military concentration camp for terrorists at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba within a year. Nearly eight years later — and 15 years since it first opened — GITMO remains in operation, albeit with a far lower detainee population as the president has worked to find new homes for prisoners, some of whom have been cleared for release for more than a decade. As well he should — Bush administration official Col. Lawrence Wilkerson revealed that top administration officials including Bush, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld covered up the imprisonment of hundreds of innocent men and boys at Guantánamo to protect their plans to invade Iraq. “The vast majority of Guantanamo detainees were innocent,” asserted Wilkerson. In fairness, Congress has fought mightily against every effort Obama has made to close GITMO, but the president’s failure to shut down the prison is one of the biggest embarrassments of his tenure. There have also been reports of continued torture at Guantánamo since Obama took office.

The prolonged indefinite detention and the absence of due process at Guantánamo Bay is a clear violation of international law.

War without end, support for brutal dictators, impunity, cover-up and stonewalling on torture and the colossal broken promise to close Guantánamo will tarnish Barack Obama’s record for many years to come. More than just dark stains, Obama’s war in Libya, drone strikes, targeted assassination of Americans without due process, failure to prosecute the Bush torturers and indefinite detention at GITMO are violations of the law. They are crimes, and this is Obama’s criminal legacy.

Brett Wilkins is the publisher of the social justice and human rights blog Moral Low Ground.

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